Jan 072015


In Herbalism We Don’t Ascend, We Deepen

by Jesse Wolf Hardin

To someone getting into herbalism for the first time, it might seem improbable that there be any competition, jealousy or even dissatisfaction among fellow enthusiasts.  Unlike in other fields, herbalists are usually laid back and generally uncomfortable with the competitive nature of the dominant society, fame is both rare and rarely sought after, and there is no pyramidical hierarchy to scramble up.  And yet, we’ve heard more than a few wistful herbalists talk about the difficulty of “climbing the ladder” in the field of herbalism.


By “climbing the ladder,”  I believe they mean that it can be hard to garner attention, be credited, or achieve greater status.  We may witness the high degree of respect and admiration shown to long lauded herbalist teachers (such as Matthew Wood, for example), and question how if ever one might be shown the same.  Some are discomforted by how quickly certain young herbalists have gotten popular on the internet, and may feel increasingly bitter that their own years of practicing, healing and teaching have gone largely unnoticed by their more esteemed peers.  This is competition at its least healthy.

Herbo Wrestling-72dpi

Without question, the work of an herbalist – like most meaningful, service-full, and even heroic work – is done out of sight of the public and usually without the witness and approbation of others in our role.  It is much the same as with the community or environmental activist who gives years to a campaign to save our forests or our water with few people ever aware of their efforts, the fire fighter we never hear about unless killed in action, the nameless organic farmer supplying a healthy alternative food source to the whole goods markets where we shop, the compassionate pastor providing counsel to his congregation, the insufficiently thanked mother who nonetheless makes her children’s needs her priority.

Such things as the desire to be published, to be invited to teach at schools and events, to be paid an amount equal to the best other teachers, to be feted or vetted, registered or certified government approved, are all the result of a natural and understandable hunger to be recognized, valued and validated within the tribe we identify with.  Recognition, attention, and credit do not, however, automatically or necessarily follow deeds, nor can we expect them to be commiserate with our best abilities, skills, efforts and accomplishments. 

Herbalist Race-72dpi

Getting recognition involves an unusual level of knowledge, an ability to recombine and synthesize different ideas, a unique angle or specialty, and an ability to communicate through writing or teaching.  Yet even with all that, becoming renowned or being treated as eminent in a field like herbalism hinges on one’s visibility and accessibility, and uncommon charisma.  Not to mention pure unadulterated luck.

“Luck,” that is, if we think of being renowned entirely as a positive thing, rather than as affirmation balanced by the discomfortingly greater scrutiny, impossibly higher standards, and even unreasonable expectations of infallibility that can be imposed on the much renowned and publicly esteemed.  Or if we fail to take into account the sadness or even resentment sometimes evidenced by other well deserving but less well known practitioners.

Fortunately, it is the very nature of folk herbalism that there is no ladder… and there is an element of looking silly whenever we try to step up into thin air.  The “ladder” of success or merit that we might imagine, would in reality have nowhere to reach.  And in those hierarchical contexts where there is a real ladder to climb, it generally results in one becoming increasingly alone, ungrounded, out of touch with their foundations, and in danger of a serious fall. 

ladder to nowhere

It’s a good thing that our meaning and success come not from ascension but from a great and persistent deepening: Deepening our focus, our connection to earth, plants and patients.  Deepening our knowledge, intuition, critical thinking, and experience.  Deepening our sense of purpose and mission, and deepening our essential commitment.

The people most certain to notice our abilities and efforts, are the people we have quietly and with little reward helped to treat the ailments of and return them to a state of health.  Seldom ungrateful is the mom whose child’s condition was eased through the wise application of the optimum herbs, the choleric man who hadn’t known a good night’s sleep until following your recommendations, the person with chronic pain who thanks to you is able to reduce or eliminate the use of dangerous pain meds.  Anytime we have been recommended by someone, it is a sure sign we are esteemed and respected.  When a person who id impoverished makes you something in trade, it is surely the most satisfying possible wage.  When a family member, friend or client we helped takes the time to tell us how great they’re feeling, their mutterings are as sweet applause.  And when we are doing all we can, for all the right reasons, we’d best value, credit, and acknowledge ourselves.

Truthfully, being lauded or applauded, rewarded or even thanked, probably has nothing to do with why we got into herbalism in the first place.  You were likely attracted to the medicine of the plants in order to help ease your own difficult conditions or those of the people you love.  You may have continued your studies out of fascination or allure, perhaps a bit of scientific curiosity mixed with a healthy dose of enchantment.  As our affinity for the plants and understanding of their effects grew, we may have broadened our reach by helping people outside of our immediate circle, and then committed to a practice even though we could not reasonably expect to ever do much better than make a modest income in compensation for all our study and work.  The readers of Plant Healer – almost without exception – would have given their time and focus to herbalism even if there was never a dollar to be made on it, even if it actually cost us money to make and dispense our medicines, proffer our herbal diagnostics, and give advice to those in need.

Even those of us who have been into herbalism for the longest time, can still recall when we felt incredibly fortunate just to have escaped the delusions of modern pharmaceutically driven health care, felt anointed by the plants we work with and made whole through their alliance, felt amply complimented that people trusted us enough to ask for assistance, felt sufficiently rewarded by the smiling eyes of those we helped.  This doesn’t mean we don’t need to make enough income from our efforts to make it possible to live and continue with this work, or that we don’t deserve recognition from other herbalists, but it nonetheless is a call to remember our root motivations in giving so much of our lives to herbalism.  It is vital that we continue to acknowledge how blessed one is to be doing what we are, how rewarding our relationship is with the green growing beings, how fortunate we are to have our knowledge and skills needed and desired by others, and how truly precious and valuable the hugs and smiles are that our caring work inspires.

Success is a Matter of Definition, Direction of Choice72dpi

Whether beginners in herbalism or experienced practitioners and teachers, we should always be making an effort to improve, learn more, reconsider and reconfigure, add new skills and insights, incorporate additional traditions, include new materia medica, and increase the rate of positive outcomes we help facilitate.  And it is a worthy goal for us to create an endurable body of work and leave a lasting legacy, so that the gift that we are outlasts our mortal form.  That said, there is already much about us to be respected.  Anyone reading this is already knowledgable about herbs far beyond the general population, a compassionate giver more than a taker, an ally of the green and a substantial benefit to our world.  

Some Ladders Lead to The Ethers-72dpi

When we walk a path through the herb-filled wild places, we and the plants seem to recognize each other, and to recognize a shared purpose within the vital orchestrations of this living planet.  And in those moments when we see ourselves reflected in polished garden marble, a mountain stream or puddle of rain, we can not only recognize but honor the hearts, abilities and efforts of the healer imaged therein.

These things, alone, can provide much affirmation, and bring us great satisfaction.  Then, when others in the herbal and natural health communities trumpet our contributions, it isn’t the fulfillment of an anxious need, it’s something extra: an added sweetness to what is already a full plate, an appreciated luxury for an already satisfied herbalist living an already meaningful, purposeful and pleasurable life.

(This post is excerpted from a longer article appearing in the Winter issue of the quarterly Plant Healer Magazine, get it now by subscribing at: www.PlantHealerMagazine.com)

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  2 Responses to “The Ladder To Nowhere – Herbalists Deepen, Not Ascend”

  1. Lately I have spent a lot of time exploring and thinking about the feelings brought about by comparing oneself to others — in the realm of herbalism and beyond — and I thank you for these beautiful and true words Jesse. We all want to be seen, we all want to be acknowledged, and we all want to have a sense that we are contributing to the greater good in some way. While I suspect that recognition has never been truly and exactly proportionate to one’s level of skill or expertise, it seems that now more than ever in the age of the Internet, this is increasingly true. The only conclusion I have been able to come to within my own Heart, is to continue to — as Paul Bergner urges — align myself to my true North, and share medicine from a place of personal experience and vulnerability. I think this is a wonderful topic to bring to light in the herbal community and elsewhere and I would love to see more responses from others sharing their experience. Thank you again for writing this timely piece Jesse!

  2. The title of this post stopped me in my tracks. I studied on my own, making medicine and reading blogs such as yours, Kiva, and then recognized a need to study with others and having chosen a program in which to do that became aware of the offerings of many wonderful herbalists. It’s maddening to want to sample them all and gain from being with them and their wisdom. While this isn’t necessarily an attempt to ascend, it is largely external, and I found myself in need of deepening. This is a process of connecting with the plants first and allowing my understanding to be informed by the beautiful work of others rather than seeing their work as my access.

    I think most of us yearn for a unique expression of connection with the plants and then we have to navigate between this and the outer world of other people, bills, and obligations. Sophia Rose, I love what you wrote about sharing medicine from a place of personal experience and vulnerability. I feel the richest, most beautiful, and enchanting work comes from that place. I have no idea if I’ll ever make a living at it and have had to let that thought go for the time being. Thanks, Jesse, very much for putting into writing something that isn’t often addressed.

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